Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cindy Milstein, "Anarchism and its Aspirations"

(AK Press / Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2010)

I first met Cindy in Washington DC, at the since-defunct National Conference on Organized Resistance in 2008. I've since run into her a few times at the anarchist book fair in Montreal. Each time she was tabling for Black Sheep Books, the infoshop in her hometown of Burlington, Vermont. Cindy is an intellectual by temperment and by training, but she's also affable, down to earth and not afraid to roll up her sleeves to do thankless, unglamourous work. She was a participant in the late Murray Bookchin's Institute for Social Ecology, and now sits on the board of the US-based Institute for Anarchist Studies. Cindy is something of a rising star of North American anarchism, and her 2010 overview of anarchist praxis is already being hailed as a classic in some circles. 

Anarchism and its Aspirations is a concise, easily readable look at anarchism which portrays the latter as an ideology of action, in action. Cindy's take on anarchism emphasizes the interlocking themes of utopia, revolutionary ethics and pre-figurative practice. She argues that anarchism is utopian to the extent that it tries to create a better world; ethically centred, to the extent that its practice must harmonize with its egalitarian, utopian aims; and finally, prefigurative, in the sense that anarchism does not wait for "the revolution" to come, but rather attempts to build alternative, ethically sound institutions in the here and now (paraphrasing the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World, anarchism attempts to build a new society in the shell of the old). The interlocking nature of its main themes helps to disarm criticisms that because it is utopian, anarchism is an unrealistic, irresponsible political position - to quote Lenin, an "infantile disorder". Rather, anarchism as Cindy portrays it is an eminently realistic position: it does not entertain illusions about revolutionary vanguards, capitalism, or the state. Anarchism is, rather, a tough slog towards a better world which entails constant self-critique and the perpetual development of its utopian assumptions against a background of real developments and concrete engagement.

I should warn prospective readers that Cindy is not saying anything essentially new in her book; Gustav Landauer aready said as much 90 years ago. What makes her contribution valuable is that she has situated contemporary anarchism in a proud historical continuum that puts it at the forefront of anti-capitalist struggle; she has also condensed a number of complex ideas into an easily understandable argument that dodges the anachronistic, frankly antiquated pitfalls of the bulk of anarchist literature. I am willing to entertain the idea that her book is a contender for the best contemporary anarchist primer out there.

No doubt certain insurrectionary/green factions will find Cindy's statement a bit toothless; arguably, however, her anarchism is tougher-minded, more serious and more appealing than that of the more "spectacular" anarchist factions that would find her position objectionable. The global anticapitalist movement, as well as the wider, heterogeneous "movement of movements" needs people like Cindy on its side - for her integrity, her realistic but hopeful appraisal of the contemporary conjuncture, and her willingness to turn intellectual tools to good use in the critique of social institutions and the advancement of viable alternatives.

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